Tales From a True Downton Abbey Thoroughbred

After being felled by a brutal bug (which I picked up in my doctor’s office while waiting for my flu shot) last week, I was glad to be back at 55th and Fifth today where I embarked on the second leg of my own personal trifecta of reporting on every aspect of my television obsession, Downton Abbey. I interviewed cast member Lesley Nichol two weeks ago and am planning a very special Downton lunch for December (No spoilers here! It’s top secret for now). Today I was thrilled to dine and dish with Harry Herbert, the second son of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, who was in town on a whirlwind three-day visit to New York to meet a few Upper East Side swells and talk to them about his glamorous and highly successful racehorse syndication business, Highclere Thoroughbred Racing. As the company’s founder, Henry puts together racing syndicates — small groups of people with deep pockets — to share in owning a racehorse. So what’s Harry’s Downton Abbey connection, you ask? Harry’s ancestral home is none other than Highclere Castle, the stunning setting — and very much its own character — on Downton Abbey. I kid you not.

Alistair Morrison, Diane Clehane and Harry Herbert
Alistair Morrison, Diane Clehane and Harry Herbert

If you’re like me and have watched the specials that have aired on Highclere on PBS and HG-TV, you’ve seen Harry’s sister-in-law Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, who is married to his brother George, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, giving behind-the-scenes tours of the great house and talking about what it’s like to have your home taken over by the cast of one of Britain’s most popular television programs. (They actually live in another home on the sprawling estate) Harry painted a fascinating picture for me of the real life cast of characters who have populated Highclere, worthy of their own PBS series. It turns out his parents’ love story mirror the one which plays out on Downton between the elder Grantham’s British-American union. Harry’s mother, Jeannie, was 19 years old when he journeyed from her home in Wyoming to England to visit friends and met his father, Henry. When she went back to the states, says Harry, “He chased her to Wyoming and wound up marrying her.”

The couple and their family didn’t live in Highclere, but instead resided in Milford House (“There was no way the family was going to move into the castle”), the stately carriage house behind the great house. Growing up, Harry and his siblings were often summoned by their grandfather to Highclere “for breakfast — until we proved we were mature enough for lunch.” The elder Lord Carnarvon lived a life much like the fictional Lord Grantham of Downton, complete with his own Carson (head butler). Remembers Harry: “Robert Taylor was the Carson of Highclere — impeccably dressed and he ruled with a iron sleeve. We were all quite intimidated by him.” When Harry’s grandfather died in 1988, and his father was charged with going through the house’s 300 or so rooms (But who’s counting?), Mr. Taylor provided the family with the shock of their lives. “Soethby’s came in and when they were through, my father said, ‘Well, thank goodness that’s done and they’ve taken everything (for sale)’ to which Mr. Taylor (just picture Carson saying this): ‘Everything apart from the Egyptian stuff, my lord.'”

It turns out the taciturn Mr. Taylor had kept a whopper of a secret. Behind several of Highclere’s paneled walls was a literal treasure trove of priceless Egyptian artifacts that were not sent to the Metropolitan Museum in New York after the widow of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose husband discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, sold them to pay off  “death duties” in the 1920s.  Amazingly, the butler knew the treasures were there for decades, but failed to tell the master of the house about them. “I thought his lordship would have destroyed them or sold them, so I kept quiet about it,” said the butler to Harry’s awestruck family. “He took us the long route around (the hidden tunnels)” and the family discovered priceless pieces of art “left in the pockets of smoking jackets and tobacco boxes” marveled Harry. Today, Harry’s brother George presides over the exhibition in Highclere’s cellar, which is open to the public.

The 6,000-acre estate (“It actually feels quite cozy inside”), whose stately presence imbues Downton Abbey with such cinematic splendor, is no stranger to the star treatment, says Harry. “Downton has brought the house so much attention but in truth, it’s been in a lot of films but they were all bombs, so for a lot of people the show gave them their first real look inside.” Unless, of course, you happened to see Eyes Wide Shut. “They filmed the orgy scene at Highclere,” Harry told me. “It was quite something to have Tom Cruise lurking around.” Indeed.

While Harry is not involved in the filming of Downton, he tells me he enjoys watching the show and gives series creator Julian Fellowes high marks for his depiction of  life in England during this bygone age. “The relationships between the characters is really spot on,” he told me. The characters of Carson and Bates are very recognizable to those of us who lived our lives at and around Highclere. Bates is absolutely just like John Stratford, the butler I grew up with. When I left for the States (Harry lived in Kentucky for four years; he has dual citizenship with the UK and USA), I can vividly remember my parents and Mr. Stratford standing on the drive waving me off. The way that Bates and Carson are close to the family is very much how we felt about Mr. Stratford. But we were terrified of Mr. Taylor (his grandfather’s butler.) He ruled Highclere and kept everything working perfectly.”

I had to ask Harry why he thought so many Americans are so enamored of  Britain and, particularly, the royals. “It’s hard to say, really,” he said. “I think it has to do with history and the fact that the countries have been allies. But beyond that, I do think Americans, like the British, love the pomp and circumstance. That was certainly true with the royal wedding.” No argument there.

When the subject of the royals came up and the conversation naturally veered its way to Prince William and Kate (‘Catherine,’ if you’re British) and, of course, Princess Diana, Harry revealed he’d been great friends with Diana, having known her since childhood (“She’s godmother to my sister’s son”). He has fond memories of days spent with the former Lady Diana Spencer when she was merely a fun-loving English girl, not the most famous woman in the world. “She was really, really caring and would always be the first one to come around with a pot of soup if you were ill. She was also very funny. I had an absolutely terrible car in London when we were young, and she once bought me this hilarious animal hood ornament to put on the front of the car like the one on a Jaguar.”

It turns out my other dining companion, the charming Alistair Morrison had a royal connection of his own. The world renowned portrait photographer who has photographed virtually every famous face of the modern age and has 18 of his photographs hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London, was a mentor to a fledgling, young photographer named Kate Middleton. Alistair gives her high marks for fitting in so seamlessly with the royals. “She has been extremely well-advised. (The royal family) has been very careful about controlling (her image) and have been smart about creating this image of accessibility..” He predicts the royals will keep a close eye on Kate for several more years until she becomes more comfortable with the spotlight and forges more of her own path. If  you’re interested in seeing some of Alistair’s gorgeous portraits, there’s an exhibition of his work here in the city at The Nicholas Brawer Gallery running until Christmas.

Once we’d dispensed with dissecting Downton and dishing about the royals, Catherine Saxton, great friends with both Harry and Alistair and, of course, the PR princess responsible from bringing us all together arrived and the conversation turned to Harry’s great passion, thoroughbred racing. His affinity and passion for the sport is also inherited. His late father was Queen Elizabeth’s racing manager and, says Harry, Her Majesty’s best friend (the two spoke every day). In addition to founding Europe’s most successful racehorse syndication business (Highclere has raced seven European champions and one world champion),  Harry helped found the swanky Royal Ascot Racing Club and also started the Cartier Awards known as “the Oscars of European Racing.” He also enjoys a good relationship with Queen Elizabeth, who owns a filly named Highclere, and his company has been a bloodstock adviser to the Queen. The stories he shared between Bloody Marys about the Queen and the unprecedented “unofficial” royal visit she made to Kentucky during the Reagan years when his father was still alive were positively enchanting. In talking to Harry, it’s quite obvious he has nothing but the utmost respect for Her Majesty. “She has been absolutely flawless,” he enthuses, marveling at how she has maintained the adoration of her subjects throughout her long reign.

While you might think that owning a thoroughbred racehorse is limited to royals or the royally rich, Harry tells me folks like Hugh Bonneville aka Lord Grantham and Elizabeth Hurley are owners through Highclere. Okay, not exactly regular folk, but still. “It’s something that can add a great deal to one’s social circle and add a lot of enjoyment to country life. With Highclere, the dream is within reach. Members can come to the castle for a visit and see the stud farm. It’s really fantastic.”  We’re packing our bags tonight.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Harry Herbert, Alistair Morrison, Catherine Saxton and yours truly

2. Author Jay McInerney with a bookish, bespectacled fellow we didn’t recognize. Carl Bernstein (in jeans!) stopped by their table to say hello.

3. Judith Regan with a lanky young gent we didn’t get to meet. Judith wished the lad a  happy Thanksgiving and then made her rounds in the dining room before departing.

4. Mitch Kanner

5. Stan Shuman

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and “special guest star” Ed Kosner, former EIC of New York and Newsweek.

7. Hearst’s PR princess (Loved the faux fur vest!) Deb Shriver with two dashingly dressed gents

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Charles Stevenson

9.  Digital Place-based Advertising Association CEO Barry Frey

11. Jane Hartley

12. Adam Schiff

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

15. Marketing man and political commentator Robert Zimmerman

16. Shelley Zalis

17. Social swan Christine Schott

18. Sole man Matt Rubel

20. Producer Diane Sokolow

21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher and Susan Duffy

22. Rick Davis

23. Michael Tannenberg

24. The Wall Street Journal‘s David Sanford and Lewis Stein

25. Bob Tobin

26. Fashionista flack Angela Mariani

27. Doug McCormick

28. Attorney Suzanne Bracker and Dr. Jane Greer (Nice to meet you!)

29. Lida Burpee with Estee Lauder’s Thia Breen

81. Travel blogger and former Town & Country travel editor  Melissa Biggs Bradley

Faces in the crowd: Kira Semler and Vi Huse looking lovely — as usual — for their monthly champagne lunch at the bar. Cheers!

We’ll be home getting the turkey ready for Thanksgiving next Wednesday. See you back in the dining room in two weeks.

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.